Cocoa bean quality

How do we know the quality of cocoa beans when they show up in one of those giant burlap bags? How can we tell they’ll be tasty once we’ve put them through the intensive processes that result in a chocolate bar?

We did some research and asked some friends, but we’re always learning, so don’t take this post as the be all end all of cocoa bean evaluation. The best way to learn to evaluate beans is to travel to cacao-producing countries and learn from the makers and farmers themselves.

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve learned so far: it takes all the senses and some background research to determine high quality cocoa beans.

Let’s start with the basics… what are we looking for in a batch of cocoa beans?

  • Well fermented – not too much, not too little
  • Well preserved – as few bugs as possible
  • Well bred – good genetics (read more about genetics in this post)

This is all in addition to the circumstances on the farm where the beans came from, including working conditions, wages for farmers, pesticides, farming practices, etc.

The question is, then, how do we know the beans are good enough to import in larger quantities and potentially serve as the source of one of our chocolate bars? The process looks different depending on how big the chocolate-maker is. Check out this description by the ICCO about checking the quality of cocoa beans. Without a panel of tasters or any fancy instruments, here’s how we do it:

1. Look at the bean

Beans have a wide variety of appearances, depending on how they are processed at the farm. Here are some pictures of drastically different beans from our visit to John Nanci’s warehouse in Oregon. Can you tell the difference?

Jamaican beans

Jamaican beans

Papua New Guinea Beans

Papua New Guinea Beans

Side note: in Papua New Guinea (PNG), because the weather is so wet and humid, some farmers dry their beans in a smoker, leaving them with a smokey flavor that I’m pretty excited to taste! Check out what Dandelion did with some PNG beans here.

When looking at the beans, we’re looking for mold, if they appear to be washed, if they’re very dirty, if there are a lot of doubles or broken shells or buggy beans, etc. This is similar to what we look for when sorting beans. Our sample looks pretty good – nothing terrible stands out.

whole raw cocoa beans

whole raw cocoa beans

2. Taste the beans

Keeping in mind that these are raw beans and have been subjected to the messy process of fermentation, drying, shipping across borders, and could harbor some potential diseases… but we taste most raw beans anyway. As I’ve mentioned before, this is not my favorite part. Richard’s much better than I am at picking out the flavor notes in raw beans. However, we both picked up the same flavors here: a very mild start, slightly earthy or woodsy hints, and then very little bitterness on the back end. The good news? These beans are definitely not acidic or putrid. The bad news? They may result in a boring chocolate, since we didn’t sense any specific strong flavors.

We’ve heard that the taste in our mouth after we’ve finished a raw bean – in other words, the aftertaste – shows the flavor notes that could appear in a chocolate bar made from those beans. Try it out!

3. Perform a cut test

This is a particularly fancy part of checking bean quality and provides a numerical score to bean quality. High end bean-to-bar chocolate makers use what’s called a guillotine to slice at least 100 beans (typically 300) in half, lengthwise, thus opening up each one so the inside is visible. Given that I don’t own one of these expensive devices, I manually sliced 100 beans and laid them out on a cutting board.

cut test

cut test

Now, we’re looking for a few different results on the inside of these beans. This chart by the Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board of Trinidad and Tobago shows many of the potential options very clearly! The summary: we’re looking for a) fully fermented beans, b) slatey beans, c) partially slatey beans, d) purple beans, e) over-fermented beans, f) moldy beans, g) germinated beans, h) infested or insect-damaged beans, or i) flat or shriveled beans.

As far as I can tell, these are either all fully fermented or over-fermented. There were no slatey, partially slatey, purple, moldy, germinated, infested, or flat beans in this sample.

There are additional tests and measures to determine if cocoa beans will be good for high quality chocolate. That said, with our experience level, we’ll stick to these methods, but we’ll continue to share what we learn as we go!

So far, we’re doing pretty well with these particular beans! We’ll have to make them into some chocolate and see how they turn out!

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